July 2010


I have an unfortunate habit of writing blog posts that entertain me, and then someone has to come up afterward and very gently say, “Sarah, you’re frightening people.”

So let me discuss the great and wonderful world of PTMing. This image technology is incredibly useful. It allows us to create high resolution images of artifacts that allow the viewer to actually interact with the object. Light can be manipulated to show the tiniest variation in decoration or surface texture, and with various viewer settings, the image can show nothing but topography (no color, only smooth surface variations). And this is only in the dome, where objects rest on a flat background as the lights flash above. We have a larger stationary version called The Tarantula that takes 32 light-varying images of an object placed on a stand. The object is then rotated five degrees and the images are taken again, allowing us to eventually stitch together a full 3-D representation of an artifact, one in which light and color can be manipulated at will. And of course, we have a portable PTM setup (involving a portable flash and a black or red ball for light to reflect off of in the field) to document large-scale sites–through PTM creation, we have even been able to view petroglyphs in spite of graffiti or weathering.

Image creation, particularly of the highly detailed and 3-dimensional variety, has much to offer archaeology, both now and in the future. There has been talk in the archaeological community of creating 3-D images or holograms of artifacts at museums to solve some of the ongoing conflict over artifact ownership and repatriation. If objects are repatriated to their originating countries, museums across the world could still be able to display them as high-quality images or even holograms (picture R2-D2, except instead of showing a desperate Princess Leia, the beaming light shows the Bust of Nefertiti…).  Personally, I think developing this image technology even further could help solve some of the biggest problems facing archaeologists today.

I’m very lucky to be learning how to create PTMs. I will be able to apply my skills in excavations, classrooms, and museums across the world. Here at USC we are at the forefront of image technology–our databases, cameras, and computer programs allow us to take images of a quality previously unknown in the archaeological world. It is rare, too, to train undergraduates in these techniques, and we will all benefit from the knowledge and practical experience gained here at USC, as we go on to lead lives of adventure and awesomeness.

Okay, maybe one more picture of my cat. Reading Foucault. Or sleeping next to Foucault. Same thing, really. He’s just a cat, STOP JUDGING HIM.

I've heard that photoshopping cats is the highest form of humor

On a much more serious note–

As was mentioned a few posts ago, John Melzian, creator of the wonderful PTM dome and The Tarantula, passed away recently. This is a reminder that his memorial service is being held today at 4 PM. Click the link for more information: https://sites.google.com/site/johnmelzian/home

Please come help us remember and celebrate this remarkable man.

~Sarah H

I took a look at hunter blatherer today and realized that Sarah Butler is monopolizing it. To stop her from her evil plot to look more responsible and interesting than the rest of us, I have decided to post.

So not all archaeologists go out into the field in China and Greece and Turkey and heaven knows where else, breaking ground like rock stars and uncovering dead babies in pots. Some of them stay at home in Los Angeles, working in the archaeology lab, taking endless photographs of cuneiform tablets.

And by some, I mean me. Just me.

I’ve been creating PTM (polynomial texture mapping) images of some cuneiform tablets on loan from the Tandy Museum. This involves taking 32 images of each relevant side of the tablet, using 32 different light settings. The resulting images are then stitched together to create a high quality image in which the light can be moved around to reveal even the faintest of etchings. The technology is good enough to see fingerprints and tiny salt inclusions in the clay. Unfortunately, both taking the images and processing them take a very, very long time, so I have to find ways to entertain myself.

Sometimes, while the camera is automatically clicking away or the modified images are saving, I’ll have a dance party. Only when the other student, Bradford the chemistry guy, isn’t in the lab, of course. I don’t know how he would react. But then again, he’s been in the lab with me this whole summer and has ceased looking startled when I run by squawking and flapping my arms, so I guess maybe he’s immune by now.

Now that a high schooler named Danny is helping out with the images, I am no longer forced to seek entertainment in such disturbing and disruptive ways. Finally, I have someone to talk to and harass and terrify! I would harass Bradford, but he’s been doing a lot of “working” and I would feel bad about interrupting. Fortunately, Danny and I are equally useless and bored while the computer clicks through the photos one by one, so he can’t really avoid talking to me.

At any rate, tomorrow I’ll try taking a camera into the lab, and I can post some pictures of tablets and cameras and what summer in the ARC lab really looks like.

In the meantime… here is an inappropriate picture of my cat. Yes, he’s holding a whip with his hind foot. Because a real archaeologist doesn’t even need the normal appendages.

Fully literate, utterly intimidating

Thank heavens for this exciting post!

~Sarah H

China has been blocking my internet for awhile now… It’s been quite obnoxious, all this censorship. Where driving drunk is just now being addressed, and where you can basically do whatever you want in public, they will still block your right to blog about your experiences!

I spend every single day here wearing BDUs, boots, t-shirts and wifebeaters. I feel kinda like Kara Thrace from the Battlestar Galactica remake.

Sans guns, and add a trowel holster and a Swiss army knife! Oh, and the snide expression and blond hair…

The head of Shaanxi Province’s cultural heritage, museums and archaeology sector was at our site yesterday. It’s insane how much power that guy has… He basically is the administrator for the entire province’s archaeological and museological goings-on, and trust me, that is no small feat considering this region has more high-profile and not-so-high-profile history than anyone knows what to do with. I was just finishing up my post-hole and scraping away some dirt from the pottery scatter at the bottom when he arrived. They descended upon us like Chinese locusts—two SUVs and 10 Chinese archaeologists came out of nowhere and cameras and photos and holy crap it was a PR circus.

I’m going to stop for a minute and explain the magnitude of what we’re doing here. 30 years ago, maybe even 20 years ago, this field school would have been impossible. The suspicion between China and the US, today bad, but then worse, would have made the very thought of a group of American students and Chinese students collaborating, conversing, sharing, and learning together at a Chinese cultural heritage site laughable. One of our professors said that the chance to work in China, put his hands on their heritage and even guess an interpretation. I’m pretty jazzed that I get to be part of a field school that will be used as a model for Sino-US archaeological training in the future.

Anyway, so the head honcho went around inspecting all of the features in our site. The other professors and stuff also came around and the Chinese students explained what we were doing and they asked to see our field records and what not. The boss told me that my drawings were super detailed and my post hole/hearths were super neat and clean and I did an excellent job. I look at this like an AYSO trophy that you get for just participating, but it was nice to see that the three hours I spent laboriously cleaning dirt off a sherd scatter with a flat-ended chopstick paid off. My field supervisor told us in the end that she was so thankful that our site was as pretty and clean as it was, and that the boss was very very pleased with how we were working.

This past Sunday we went to a site outside of Xi’an called “Phoenix’s Landing” that is the burial of a general during the Western Han dynasty. Now that was AWESOME. You could see the deposition layers and the construction of the tomb itself. On top of that we saw a terracotta army being unearthed and holy crap, it might have been one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The blackness from the decay! The ash! The leftover paint on the faces! It was grand. I love archaeology.

We then used another hookup to go back to the forest of stelae, where we got a tour from the director herself, who was a classmate of my project director’s. I bought rubbings of that mountain that I really loved on silk scrolls to decorate my room J. I also got better explanations on things, and a tour through the Buddhist art gallery, where I think I could have spent 4 hours just examining the imagery. This trip I’ve really been trying to narrow down what it is I want to study, and I think I’ve been inching toward it. We came back after that, and now I’m back at the base doing lab work again…

News about our visit to Beilin is posted on the HanTang website–a website of the Shaanxi Provincial Administration of Cultural Heritage. Visit here, and use google translator?:


If you’ve seen the “dome” we use in USC’s Archaeology Research Center when making the movable light images, you  know something about John Melzian –  he  designed it.  If you’ve seen the “tarantula” you know something about John too — he transformed it. And if you’ve heard of the adventures of the West Semitic Research Project — whether in the snake-infested desert in Egypt or photographing Dead Sea Scrolls around the world –John was there.

Sadly, John had a heart attack and died while riding his bike on June 29th. He was a longtime friend and a greatly valued colleague. He was the husband of Marilyn Lundberg, associate director of the WSRP and InscriptiFact. There will be a memorial and celebration of John’s life on Friday, July 23rd at 4pm.   See this link for additional details: tiny.cc/johnmelzian

I’ve been in the field now for a week…

We start pretty late for an excavation. We get to the site at 7, work until 11:30, break until 3:30 or 4 depending on the heat, and then come back until 7.

I have a 5x5m quadrant of a larger 10×10 square. I have a partner named Jiajun who is a graduate student at Peking University. In my quadrant, we have excavated a few pottery sherds of varying styles, shells, a hearth and a post hole. Today I spent all my time shaving off centimeters at a time from the hearth about 10cm down. I take extensive notes about everything— soil color, sherds, limestone deposits, fired earth, and hardened dung beetle balls/any other disturbances. We measure everything, of course, and draw/photograph all features/finds in situ. I talk with Jiajun about Chinese, and she teaches me useful phrases. Most of the time we’re pretty quiet, however, and I have a lot of time to contemplate random things. Every time someone passes me I am asked if I find this interesting. I can’t say the troweling itself is interesting, but I do a pretty good job at self-entertainment and musing. We have a research presentation due on Friday about something related to the site/Yangshao culture, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

I am intrigued by the workers at the site, who are all old men and women who do the digging and stuff. I want to ask them their life stories and talk to them, but alas, I dont speak Mandarin. They are intrigued by us, of course, and when they sit down for breaks are constantly staring.

After hours, I usually read a chapter or two of the books I brought along, or of the assigned readings. At night we generally get a few bottles of cold Tsingtao, sit on the stoop out front, and sharpen our trowels while talking after a long day. We talk about archaeology stuff a lot, about where we’re going in life, and of course whatever is on our minds.

I have a lot of bug bites…  A lot. More than reasonable. I’m also getting tan, which is an odd miracle.

The interesting culture clash here is Chinese vs. American archaeology. We both kind of hate the other’s methods. Chinese archaeologists don’t care about details and small things, but we bag everything. Americans take everything slowly— mapping, measuring, and noting everything in their pit. Chinese just do it. They just dig, and when they find something, they take it out and note where its from. None of the in situ business. I know my partner is getting frustrated and irritated by how slow our process is, and I find myself getting frustrated with her frustration. She doesn’t realize how important the context is. I don’t realize how slow we are… Or something. I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but I am struggling to put myself in their shoes. All I can think of is that they have so much pottery, so much of archaeology in general in China that the smallest sherds mean nothing to them, and it’s impossible to consider everything. That doesn’t really fly either, because the entire Mediterranean is a goldmine that is very carefully recorded. We dug down to 20cm to find the floor last week before starting on some floatation samples, so today we just worked on cleaning up the profiles, exposing the rest of the floor and bagging shell/pottery samples. I cant wait until we’re done— it’s taken us about a week to bring up the floor after intensive troweling and drawing and stuff. I am a little tired of listening to my partner complain about how we aren’t finished yet, but this is just an illustration of our differing views on how long something should take. We have 3 more weeks here! I’ll take 3 weeks to excavate something properly if I have to!

Maybe this is more a reflection on our cultures rather than on our archaeology. Perhaps it’s money, perhaps its the desire to get the past into the public eye… I don’t know. I am wondering about the split between academic archaeology and museums now. If there is any…

Most people think of archaeology as a rough-and-tumble, National Geographic discipline of men and women spending time in tents or in crappy locations in the middle of nowhere without running water and digging until extreme conditions.

While that may be true in some places (indeed, a lot of excavations), our place is a palace in comparison. We are staying at the Shaanxi Provincial Research Institute of Archaeology headquarters in Gaolin County thanks to some string-pulling and some guanxi. It’s a heavily guarded place, with a lawn out front, 24 hour security guards, cameras, and German Shepherd patrols (as with other industries, the antiquities black market in China is raging).

The main building is a dormitory of offices and living spaces of Chinese archaeologists and conservators doing research at the Institute. There is a picket fence cutting the property, beyond which is the actual research buildings which resemble warehouses. They are chalk full of artifacts in crates, in various stages of conservation, and are being researched in full by scientists and archaeologists. There are about 12 buildings overall. Behind those are a gorgeous small lake to sit next to in your break time from writing your dissertation or something, and a really amazing army of headless statues from various dynasties chilling in a corner like a forest. There is also a garden where they grow fresh veggies. PLUS— one of the guard dogs gave birth to a litter of 7 puppies three days ago and they are SO CUTE.

My room is austere, but I didn’t bring much with me in the first place. I share it with my roommate, Renee, a senior at BU studying archaeology and biology. My bed is actually pretty comfortable, and somewhat large. I wake up feeling refreshed anyway… A huge upgrade from where we were in Shanghai. I have little requirements for living, and consider myself pretty adaptable, and this far exceeds my expectations.

The showers are gender-communal. This morning I showered with a few older women, which is actually really funny to listen to them (you can totally tell they are talking about you— esp when they say “meiguoren” or American). The washing machines are also in the shower area. I did my laundry today, but ended up doing most of it by hand. We line-dry outside here, just as you would in most parts of Asia. I find doing laundry this way kind of therapeutic. It’s like I get to know my clothing a little bit better by having to examine it for soap suds or dirt I missed.

The bathrooms are split here as well. The showers are down the hall, but the toilets are basically across from my room. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Usually Chinese bathrooms smell like hell has broken through the pipes, but the Institute keeps the “cesuo” (bathroom) smell to a minimum.

I am presenting my research proposal to the class. I am focusing on settlement archaeology and the layout of the site as a means of implicating labor organization, possible site uses, and illustration of the temporal variation in structures based on post-holes, hearths and ash pits. I’ll be sampling a lot of soil horizons, seriating pottery sherds found in ash pits and hearths, looking at the depth of each cultural feature in relation to the other, and possibly figuring out a rough sketch of the length of habitation at a given time before another level was put down. Settlement patterns are always interesting. In the Neolithic, there isnt much else to work with….

My glasses straight up split in half today. I was just pulling them off my face to wipe sweat off and they just snapped right in half as if the plastic were weak. I took them to the back conservation labs to a guy who was conserving a HUGE ass bronze transcription of Confucius’s Analects and he told me 24 hours to have the glue set. Woooot.